Off the Pulpit


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Hard Hearts

The Torah tells us ‘Do not harden your heart (Deut 15:7).’ The verse is speaking particularly about the poor, who turn to you for help. Hard-heartedness is a general affliction as kindness is a general attribute. Every human being is at times beleaguered, no matter their social status. In our sadly shrill society, when discourse operates by insult as often as by argument, there is a constant turning away from the humanity of the other. In a beautiful passage, G.K. Chesterton says of Charles Dickens: “Dickens did not dislike this or that argument for oppression; he disliked oppression. He disliked…

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Judaism Works!

The world of work is changing and especially given the pandemic, many people face an uncertain future. Judaism seems a cerebral tradition, and the knowledge economy well suited to a bookish people. Yet the Talmudic Rabbis had jobs involving their hands and our tradition has a lot to say about all types of labor. In this uneasy age, when menial jobs are newly understood as essential work, it is worth reminding ourselves of Judaism’s understanding of work. “Six days shall you work,” says the commandment concerning the Shabbat. Work is as essential to human dignity as resting from work. Human…

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Of Hearts and Homes

There is a poignant story on kindness and status told about R. Levi Yitzchak of Bereditchev. He was passing through a town and asked of a well-known and respected member of the community if he could stay for the night. The man, having no idea it was the famous Rabbi who asked, refused, insisting “My home is not an inn for wayfarers.” The Rabbi eventually found a warm welcome and a place to stay with a poor teacher. Later word spread that the renowned Reb Levi Yitzhak was in town and the man, now abashed, asked for forgiveness. “I did…

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American Law and Jewish Law

Many scholars of Jewish and American law have noted a fundamental difference in the underpinnings of the two legal systems. American law is built primarily on a notion of rights and Jewish law on obligations and responsibilities. As with all such generalities, there are many exceptions. But everywhere in Jewish law is the question of what I owe to others and what I owe to God. Ramban wrote that one can be “a scoundrel with the permission of the Torah” – in other words, one can formally obey the rules of the Torah and yet be an unkind person. In…

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What Makes Us Different?

In figuring out our own identities, we both distinguish ourselves by deciding internally who we are as well as comparing ourselves with others. For the Jewish people, we often wonder what makes us different from any other nation? How are we alike and how are we different? One answer is in an often asked question in Jewish legal literature: Why, for many mitzvot like charity or visiting the sick, is there no blessing? The Torah Temimah answers that the formula of a blessing, “who has sanctified us with his mitzvot and commanded us” is designed to emphasize that we are…

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The Direction of Time

When I was in school we learned about a supposed difference between the Greek and Jewish conception of time. The Greeks, we were told, thought of time in a circular fashion, that it repeated itself. The Jews, pointing to the Messiah, thought of time as linear, headed to a destination. Ecclesiastes which talks about the sun rising and setting and returning to where it rose, is the biblical book most influenced by Greek thought. In the years since, there has been a good deal of discussion and criticism of that as a too-simple dichotomy. After all, we repeat the holidays…

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Today is Real, Too

When I was in college people would tell me that it was not ‘real life.’ Everyone had a definition of ‘real life’ – it began when one was married, or had a job, or had children. We promote this idea of provisional living – during the pandemic we say we aren’t living ‘real life.’ Someone told me we should now wish one another “until 121” instead of the biblical 120 years, since 2020 does not count. But it is not so. Every day and every week and every year is equally ‘real.’ Kindergarten is as real as graduate school which is as…

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